Turkey toward 2000

By Kramer, Heinz | Brookings Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Turkey toward 2000


Kramer, Heinz, Brookings Review


In Search of National Consensus and a New Political Center

Last October 29, the Republic of Turkey celebrated its 75th anniversary with an impressive show of republican sentiment and national pride. In streets and public places hung with hundreds of thousands of Turkish national colors and adorned with pictures of Kemal Ataturk, the "father of modern Turkey," flag-waving crowds in Turkey's large cities celebrated by chanting Kemalist slogans. The clear impression was of a united and stable country that has successfully negotiated a comprehensive social and political modernization.

Political developments of the past decade in and around Turkey, however, reveal a different picture. At home, the political center has weakened in the face of political movements, especially political Islam and the Kurdish question, that challenge the Kemalist model of a secular republic and the unitary nation and state. As the erosion of the traditional Western-oriented political center has accelerated, more extreme views have been established on the political scene. In Turkey's parliamentary elections of April 18, parties such as the ultra-nationalist Nationalist' Action Party, the Islamist Virtue Party, and the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party gathered a combined vote of almost 40 percent. The moderate parties of the center-right and center-left that once won about 75 percent of the electorate took only about 57 percent of the national vote. The continuous growth of the Islamist forces and Kurdish insurgency has made the military increasingly influential in Turkish politics: national stability now comes at some significant cost to Turkish democracy.

Externally, the international sea change following the end of the Cold War also vastly changed the country's foreign and security policy environment, weakening Ankara's bonds with its Western allies and stimulating Turkish assertiveness in relations with neighboring countries. As a result, Turkey's foreign policy is undergoing tentative change on two fronts. First, Turkey is seeking a new balance between cooperative engagements in multinational frameworks and the more or less single-handed pursuit of national interests on the basis of a greatly enhanced, and still growing, military capability. Second, Turkey's political establishment is increasingly on the lookout for new foreign policy horizons beyond the country's traditional exclusive orientation toward the West and its European institutions. Turkey is not severing but redefining its relations with its Western allies, while reaching out for a broader Eurasian role as well.

Turkey's foreign policy orientation is of considerable importance for its American and European partners. Turkey plays a significant part in developing the energy resources of the Caspian Sea region. Turkey's contribution to containing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, as well as its strategic cooperation with Israel, are important for the future of the Middle East. Ankara is promoting cooperation in the Black Sea area and is supporting the Newly Independent States of Central Asia in their drive for national consolidation and independence. Peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean depend on Turkey's readiness to solve its longstanding disputes with Greece and to help solve the Cyprus problem. Turkey's developing relations with various Balkan states are key to establishing cooperative structures in that region. Finally, the construction of a new European security architecture depends on Turkey's support for NATO's enlargement and restructuring. All these issues are of great strategic importance to the core countries of the Atlantic Alliance, and Turkey's development cannot be ignored or neglected by its Western partners.

Erosion of the Political Center

Because of the weakening of Turkey's political center and the growth of extreme factions, no party has gained a political majority since 1991. Governments have had to be based on generally short-lived, weak coalitions--often between ideologically opposed parties because the bitter personal rivalry between ideologically related leaders makes coupling parties from the same "family" almost impossible.

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